The loneliness of the unbelieving priest


(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University report in their paper Preachers who are not believers that in order to overcome their sense of loneliness, unbelieving clergy quietly seek out cues and clues to identify which of their colleagues share their disbeliefs. “Among their fellow clergy, they often develop friendships, and suspecting that their friends share their views, they gingerly explore the prospect, using all the ploys that homosexuals have developed over the centuries.” (I wrote earlier about this topic and the Dennett-LaScola study here and here.)

Richard Dawkins comments on the peculiar dilemma faced by disbelieving priests and what it says about the straitjacket that religion imposes on those assigned to do its work.

The singular predicament of these men (and women) opens yet another window on the uniquely ridiculous nature of religious belief. What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn’t tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children. Only religion has the malign power to do that. Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.

The reasons that priests become unbelievers vary. Apart from their discovery during their studies that there is no way that their religious texts can be infallible, they also confront the same questions that occur to most thinking people, except that they cannot avoid them the way that other people can. Here are some sample quotes from unbelieving clergy:

“[I]f God was going to reveal himself to us, don’t you think it would be in a way that we wouldn’t question? …I mean, if I was wanting to have…people teach about the Bible…I would probably make sure they knew I existed. …I mean, I wouldn’t send them mysterious notes, encrypted in a way that it took a linguist to figure out.”

“I do remember this a couple of years down the road after being a Christian – this concept and idea of hell. I was going, ‘Hell? What do you mean I was going to hell? Why? What’s hell, and where is it?’ And I’ve never believed in hell. I just never bought it. There’s a place where people go when they die, and they burn eternally? No.”

“The whole heaven thing makes no sense either. Why would I want to walk on streets of gold? I know people think that’s literally how it’s going to be. If we have no value system in heaven, as far as monetary or value system like we have here on earth, why would I want to walk on streets of gold? And I have people who believe they’re going to have a physical body, and we’re going to be in the new Earth…and we’re not going to die, and we’re not going to grow old, and we’re not going to have pain. Why? That all makes no sense to me.”

The debates between religious people and theists, and the books published by the new atheists have also been effective in making them into unbelievers.

“Probably one of the most mind-opening things was listening to all these debates from top people of Christianity; or believers vs. non-believers. And I tried to do the same thing: be open and listen, and use my mind and reason, I guess. And almost undeniably, even being a believer and knowing the Christian claims and scripture, you know what? This guy won in the debate. He’s a non-believer. Why?”

The reason the atheists win is of course that it is the atheists who have all the arguments and evidence on their side. There is absolutely no way for a religious believer to win a debate with an atheist except by using rhetorical tricks and verbal sleights of hand. Atheists who are aware of those tricks and keep their focus on the main issue (that there is no evidence for god and that the world is perfectly explicable without invoking any kind of supernatural agency) will easily win such debates. It undoubtedly helps in such debates to know science so that one can rebut the spurious claims that are sometimes put forward that recent scientific advances support the existence of god.

The key phrase above that tipped that priest into disbelief is that he tried to use his ‘mind and reason’. Once people start to do that, faith in god will disappear. Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation that broke away from the Catholic Church, was well aware of the danger that reason posed to faith, saying, “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God” and “Reason should be destroyed in all Christians” and “Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.” (quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 190)

This is also the reason why faith tends to decline with increasing education (Michael Shermer, Why We Believe, 2000, p. 84, 253). The dilemma faced by mainline churches is that they want to be seen as the religion of choice for thinking people, unlike the fundamentalist churches whose preachers simply cherry-pick verses from the Bible, think that it an inerrant record of historical events, and make appeals to their flock based purely on emotion, mainly fear of hell and damnation. But in order to serve that constituency, these churches have to have scholarly priests able to thoughtfully address the questions posed by thinking people. But a scholarly priest has to use his mind and reason and is thus in great danger of becoming an unbelieving priest.

I think that religious institutions must be well aware that the ranks of their clergy are rife with disbelievers.

Next: How do disbelieving priests deal with their parishioners?

POST SCRIPT: More on corruption in the Catholic Church

NPR had a story yesterday on the scandalous case of Marcial Maciel Degollado, the sexually abusive, drug-addicted founder of the Legion of Christ that I wrote about earlier, giving more details of how he gained money and power and influence. For example, rich people who gave him large cash contributions would get to have private masses with Pope John Paul II. It is just like corrupt politicians granting private access to rich contributors.

You can read the transcript or listen to the broadcast.

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